Both excelled at the Commerce School. Each won the prestigious Lenox-Conyngham Scholarship award and spent a year pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Cambridge’s Trinity College. And both Raj Das and Ozair Ahmad are employed at San Francisco-based private equity firm Alpine Investors.
Sharing a similar background and history of success, the two products of McIntire are further developing their skills in their chosen field. They both decided to work for the same software- and services-focused firm that became a certified B corporation (benefit corporation) in 2019. Founded in 2001, Alpine earned its certification through special attention to its environmental, social, and governance policies; supporting diversity in finance; civic engagement; and more ethical goals as part of a sustainably minded community of 10,000 organizations representing 150 industries across the world.
So while much has been made about commerce’s ability to serve as a catalyst for change, many of its most immediate results are most often evident in entrepreneurial ventures. The work that Das and Ahmad have had a part in, however, proves that a McIntire education can also be readily applied to create good for people and the planet through finance.
We caught up with both alumni to ask them how their undergraduate studies at the Commerce School readied them for their current roles, what they gained from the Lenox-Conyngham Scholarship, and how their internship prepared them to succeed today.
What did you take from your time at McIntire with you to Alpine? What continues to inform your responsibilities?
Ahmad: Whether it was the M&A project in third-year ICE [McIntire’s Integrated Core Experience] or the final presentation for Professor Peter Maillet’s “Global Finance” course, McIntire pushed me to learn how to work on a tight timeline alongside teammates who worked according to each of our own strengths. Our professors taught us to solve difficult problems on our own, while also teaching us the value of asking for guidance from subject matter experts when necessary. In private equity due diligence, you are constantly working with different sets of teams. Accordingly, the emphasis on team projects in McIntire was hugely helpful and directly relevant to my current role.
The emphasis on communication and presentation skills at McIntire was also invaluable. Building confidence in these areas has served me well since my first day on the job at Alpine, where we are regularly presenting to company executives and our internal investment committee.
Das: I’ve increasingly appreciated the McIntire experience as I’ve spent more time in a professional role. McIntire provides world-class preparation for any job via the intense focus on working collaboratively across different teams and the project-based nature of the work. In retrospect, the “soft skills” of communication, management, collaboration, and analyzing companies, and industries from a systems perspective are what I appreciate most from my time at McIntire.
There are numerous classes, relationships, and experiences that were highly influential in guiding my current thinking and approach to work, but two in particular stand out as having a particularly significant impact.
One was developed in Professor Maillet’s “Global Finance” course. In many ways, this stands out as the McIntire class that required the most critical thinking and is especially relevant to the world of investing. The daily updates, requiring students to take a piece of news and develop a hypothesis, and the facilitation of debates on different topics were both immensely helpful in preparing for the corporate world, in which being able to develop an informed opinion is the most valuable skill you can bring to the table when you’re starting your career.
The other framework that really stuck with me was instilled in Mark White’s classes. Professor White constantly emphasized the need to apply a more rigorous, structured approach to the decision-making process. The ability to develop a set of key criteria, separate noise from signal, and accurately evaluate a decision based on those criteria is something that I’m constantly seeking to improve.
What about your time at the University of Cambridge as a Lenox-Conyngham Scholar? What did you gain from your year studying economics at the graduate level?
Das: At Cambridge, I developed a deeper appreciation for the importance of drilling down into the underlying methodology and data before coming to conclusions. I learned how I best think through a problem. And I developed a deeper sense of confidence in my own abilities; most people in my program focused exclusively on economics in their prior studies and had a much more quantitative background. Facing a steeper and longer learning curve was intimidating, but ultimately succeeding in the course and feeling confident in my knowledge of the material were incredibly gratifying.
One of the things at Cambridge that I appreciated most—and that I certainly felt at UVA as well—was being surrounded by curious people; the love of learning, desire to push the boundaries of their field, and decided discontent with the status quo made for a stimulating and motivating environment.
One of the things that I had hoped to get out of the experience was a British accent, which unfortunately is a skill that still escapes me.
Ahmad: In fourth-year investing seminars, both Professor John Griffin and Professor Chris Shumway impressed upon our classes the immense importance of being able to take a large amount of complex information, focusing on a handful of the most important areas, and diving deep into those topics through creative research. The importance of this set of skills was frequently reiterated by my professors at Cambridge, and I am grateful for the training I received in this regard.
For instance, for a 20-page essay I wrote for a course, I had to pore over more than 20 books and 30 academic papers, and ensure that my essay both comprehensively addressed the existing academic arguments on my thesis, while also presenting a unique analysis and conclusion. The skill of distilling a great deal of information on a short timeline directly translated to my job in the investing world: It could take months to research every aspect of a given investment or market. Learning how to quickly focus on the pivotal topics and creatively identify value-added research is a competitive advantage in the investing sector.
Before you began your role, you had some time with Alpine as an intern. How did that time prepare you for your position with the firm?
Das: One of the things I most appreciate about Alpine is that an intern’s responsibilities are the exact same as a full-time analyst. As an intern, I was building the deal model, working intimately with our investing partners and CEOs, and managing our teams of outside consultants. Moreover, senior deal team members not only actively solicit your opinion, they’ll also encourage you to feel comfortable proactively offering it and will treat you as a thought partner when making a decision. It’s rare to have this level of responsibility in an intern experience.
I’m particularly grateful for how senior team members always took the time to explain their thought process and actively pushed me as an intern to think at a higher level. I believe being able to put on the “CEO hat” and force yourself to think about the broader implications of a decision drives success across increasing levels of responsibility in the professional world. I felt confident, going into the role as a full-time analyst, that I knew what would be expected of me. Lastly, I was appreciative of the collaborative culture; from the interns to the partners, I felt comfortable going to people for help when I needed it.
Ahmad: Alpine’s internship gave me a great understanding of the various moving parts that are pivotal to a successful investment firm. While due diligence responsibilities are the chief area of focus for junior investment professionals, we were also exposed to a number of other functions, which has allowed my colleagues and me to both become better investors and hit the ground running as full-time team members.
What are some of the greatest challenges you’ve seen thus far facing a B Corp like Alpine Investors that a traditional company doesn’t have to contend with?
Ahmad: To receive and maintain a B Corp certification, Alpine went through a rigorous third-party assessment, amended our operating agreement, and deeply considered the implications of our investments on all stakeholders, including current and future employees, customers, and the environment. We view this not as a challenge, but as a function of the firm to positively drive change across a number of ESG [environmental, social, and governance] initiatives. A frequent topic of discussion at Alpine quarterly renewals and investing team meetings is impact, and we are encouraged by the B Corp certification to continue our considerations on how we can drive positive impact among all of our stakeholders.
Das: In becoming a B Corp, not only did Alpine have to complete a rigorous third-party assessment, but we are also now required to consider the effects our decisions have on other stakeholders such as employees, customers, society, and the environment. These are not standards that other private and public companies are held to, but we feel it’s necessary to be good stewards of our businesses and communities and operate as a force for good.
What’s the best part of working for a B Corp, and what are you most looking forward to in 2020?
Das: The part that’s personally most satisfying about working for Alpine is the focus on employee engagement and development, and it was rewarding to be validated through the B Corp assessment. One way Alpine feels like it can have a positive impact on the portfolio companies is by working to improve employee happiness, and we’re proud of the data that supports the improvement in engagement over time under Alpine ownership.
2020 is shaping up to be an exciting year for Alpine–we closed our first billion dollar fund, we’re quickly growing our investing team, and we’re opening a New York office in the fall (coronavirus permitting). I’m shamelessly nepotistic and am looking forward to coming back to Grounds (again, coronavirus permitting) and, hopefully, increasing the UVA presence within Alpine.